Skip navigationHumans vs. Robots: Who's best in space?

1. Learning from Columbia

2. A troubled hybrid

3. The argument for people

4. Pointless exercise?

5. Making sense of the debate


Left: Animal cages for space research. Finger points to opening for the food bar cassette; the other slot is for waste trays. Right: One complicated canteen: This gadget adds water to animal cages in space. Photo: NASA.




The space station may never achieve its potential in terms of science in space.




This large centrifuge was designed for artificial-gravity biology research on the space station. It was never built; check back in a decade or so... Photo: NASA..




















A Russian cosmonaut and American astronaut tinker with a space gadget the on space station. Photo: NASA.


Three's company, six a crowd
Although physicist Robert Park may be unusually acerbic in slamming the space station's scientific capacity, a stack of expert-committee reports also question the legitimacy of marketing the expensive station as a science lab.

How expensive is it? Hard to know. Annual cost-overruns have reached $2 billion. We've read estimates of total station costs at $95 billion, but the true price may never be calculated, because the station has been lumped with the shuttle program in the budget.

At any rate, monster cost overruns have brought massive cutbacks, which have , in turn, sparked criticism that science money is buying hardware instead of science, squeezing research to virtually nothing. (Science, you may recall, was the original justification for the hugely expensive project.)

(left)A small metal  cage with wire mesh front. Hand points to rectangular openings for food. (right)A shiny metal block with knobs, dials, switches, and meters. We've mentioned a 2002 National Research Council study. It described a litany of cutbacks in animal cages, in science modules and the racks to hold them, and in a huge centrifuge designed to mimic low-level gravity (see "Factors Affecting ..." in the bibliography).

The study said the Nov., 2001 decision to complete only the station core would "critically compromise" biology experiments and "severely limit or foreclose the scientific community's ability to maximize the research potential of the ISS."

Perhaps the most significant purge deleted a $1 billion crew-escape craft. For many years to come, the only way to evacuate a damaged station will be on a Soviet-era Soyuz capsule. But Soyuz holds only three, which places an upper limit on the size of the station crew.

NASA says 2.5 crew members are needed to keep the station running. The NRC committee did some heavy math and found that with six astronauts, 3.5 people would be available to run experiments, but a crew of three would cut time available for science experiments by 86 percent.

The slash-and-burn of the science program enraged the international "partners" who have ponied up billions for science on the station, only to be told there is neither time nor facilities for that science. In a diplomatic note, Canada said the cutback "would virtually eliminate the partners' collective ability use" the station (see "Partners Protest ..." in the bibliography).

Diagram shows centrifuge accommodation module with   a cylindrical structure detailing 1), the life sciences glove box, 2) the 2.5 meter   centrifuge, 3) the habitat holding rack and 4), the service system.

Good money after bad?
After the Columbia tragedy, would a continued emphasis on putting people into space amount to throwing good money after bad? Herman Cummins, who participated on the National Research Council study of space-station science, says that knowing what we do today, the station might not be "a worthwhile investment."

But the question facing us today is different, he adds. "An enormous amount has been spent already, and there are international partners, so at this point to abandon it would be an enormous waste of effort and goodwill in an international scientific program that the United States has been pressing for the last 15 years." About $5-billion would go a long way to finishing the job, according to some reports.

But NASA's existing plan - to complete the core, and leave the crew at three, "Would really cripple the program," Cummins adds. "If you don't expand the crew, it will not meet its objectives; it's that simple."

Two male astronauts repair a blocky metal structure with specialized instruments, in tight quarters.

The disdain is plain
While some U.S. researchers fear the loss of NASA funding if they complain about the melt-down in funding for space science, others have made their disdain plain. Ursula Goodenough, a Washington University biologist, told Science magazine that after repeated disappointments over budgets, hardware, and schedule, "On a percentage basis, the number of [space] researchers is going down at a fairly impressive clip" (see "Can Space Station..." in the bibliography).

The view of the conservative British weekly The Economist reflected several we read from across the pond. "Sending people into space is pointless. It is dangerous, costly, and scientifically useless" (see "Unmanned..." in the bibliography).

Economists don't count inspiration. Doesn't the human spirit soar when people go into space?


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